No, it's neither a legacy quality like great copywriting talent, nor a more contemporary capability such as technological expertise. It's the ability to collaborate seamlessly across the boundaries of your own agency.
"In this field, all the emerging channels are coming together," says Lincoln Bjorkman, senior VP-creative director of Digitas, one of the U.S.'s leading online agencies.
"And that complexity," chimes in his corporate cousin Alex vonPlato, the creative director of Medical Broadcasting Co., also among the largest interactive and health-care agencies, "requires collaboration."
Creativity IS collaboration
I spent an afternoon recently with Ms. vonPlato, Mr. Bjorkman and a third colleague -- Rachel Iazzetta, the creative director of Modem Media -- to explore a philosophical question with profound implications for marketers in the new millennium: What is creativity today? Without slighting the power of big ideas, they made clear that, in no small way, creativity is collaboration.
"Part of the future of creativity," says David Kenny, CEO of Digitas LLC, the public company that owns the Digitas agency, Modem Media and MBC, "is appreciating the diversity of your colleagues' backgrounds."
Mr. Kenny's three creative directors certainly are diverse. Mr. Bjorkman came from a guerrilla-marketing agency. Ms. Iazzetta was a software-interface designer. Ms. vonPlato was a TV producer. Although serving different agencies under the Digitas LLC umbrella, they are involved together not only in creating a new medium, but in creating a single culture that can exploit that medium's limitless potential.
Egoless creative director
"If you're working across platforms, the creative director must be egoless," Mr. Kenny says.
So many of Digitas' processes seem to derive not from the testosterone-fueled culture of conventional advertising, but from management approaches more frequently associated with leadership-focused companies like GE. Digitas holds a "Strategy Boot Camp" twice a year, in which seniors from across the agencies -- from both classically "strategic" roles and those, such as project management, not normally labeled that way -- gather to discuss strategy frameworks, planning processes and consumer-insights development.
Every staffer has a GDP -- a Growth & Development Plan -- and is measured against it in annual, 360-degree appraisals more familiar in management consultancies than ad agencies -- no surprise, because Digitas' CEO is a former Bain consultant. "It's liberating," Mr. Bjorkman says of the process. "You're not watching your back wondering what people are saying about you -- you get the feedback. It makes it unacceptable not to have dialogue."
Sure, the work is impressive. The recent Digitas campaign for American Express, to promote the card company's sponsorship of the TriBeCa Film Festival, was a model of how to harness consumer-created content (in this case, 15-second movies) to create deep, relevant, measurable engagement with a familiar brand. A Pontiac Solstice online promotion sold 1,000 cars in 41 minutes.
But more unusual are the values that are getting this unusual marketing company and its people to such results.
"The challenge and the opportunity for us is to build general managers," says Mr. Kenny. "You have to do that if you are going to be trusted adviser to your client. So our promise is, if you come here as a creative director or media person or project manager, we'll develop you not just into an interactive-advertising specialist, but into a leader."
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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.